'These are called Mareechan, you know, like in the Ramayana', says Pilla chettan (Kochu Preman), pointing to a herd of spotted deer, as his visitors stand spell-bound. That's how myth, legend, and rumour blend seamlessly with reality in Venu's Carbon. And Fahadh plays the dreamer, Sibi Sebastian, who is forever looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. He doesn't want the ashes any more, he wants the diamonds.
It's hard to place Carbon within one genre. The film begins with a note of mystery. Sibi has gone missing and he's believed to have a valuable stone, a maragatham in his possession. Has he been kidnapped? Murdered? Is the stone magical? Turns out, it's the first of Sibi's many attempts to make a fortune. When it fails, he goes on an anti-capitalist rant, lecturing his friend (Sharafudheen) on how one first needs money to make more money.
Venu takes his time to get us to the leap of faith that Sibi must make to get what he wants. But all of these little episodes that come prior to this great journey tell us more about the man and his motives. The narrative flirts with magical realism in the first half (the episode with Soubin as the mahout is pretty creepy) but convinces us that these instances are merely dreams or a figment of Sibi's imagination. However, as the film progresses, we're sucked into a world where it's hard to decide what's fantasy and what is not. The perspective shifts from looking at Sibi to looking from within Sibi, as if we've consumed some 'magic' mushrooms along with him, too.
There's a nice balancing of beliefs within this framework. When Sibi laughs at Kannan, a tribal boy's (Chethan Jayalal) fear of what lies in a part of the jungle his ancestors have warned him about, Stalin (a superb Manikandan) points out that Sibi's belief in rahu kalam is no less irrational. Sibi is the educated guy who chucks plastic bottles in the forest, Kannan is the sort who leaves behind some eggs in the bird nest while he takes out a few for a meal. You don't get the luxury of dismissing anyone's perspective or stories and so, the plot keeps us on the edge with the possibility that anything could be true.
Perhaps the weakest link in the journey is Mamta Mohandas's character - Sameera. She remains under-explored and we don't really know much about her other than the fact that she's a "jungle junkie". Sameera also looks a bit too squeaky clean and made-up for a woman who's spent a few days in a dense jungle.
Fahadh is brilliant as the ambitious Sibi, shifting from the comic (the scene when he explains a grand plan to import cycles from China to Dileesh Pothan is a delight) to the fearful. His eyes growing increasingly desperate, you root for his foolhardy plan though Venu doesn't bother giving us the usual crutches for justifying a character's avarice - there is a sister but she isn't waiting to be married off, there is a mother and though she falls sick, it's not cancer, the father isn't impoverished and is capable of paying off Sibi's debts.
Many of the scenes are shot in the dark. Sometimes, you wish there was a bit more light so you can see everything clearly but this is deliberate - you are not supposed to catch every expression on the faces, every rustle in the bush. Pilla chettan, the caretaker, looks harmless in the day but provides us the jumps at night.
KU Mohanan's camera gives us an immersive experience of the jungle, sometimes taking our breath away with its beauty and sometimes striking fear in our hearts. There is patience in how the story is shown rather than told - a forest squirrel munches on fruits merrily from a tree, as a hungry Sibi watches in part-frustration, part-fascination. There is no dialogue but you feel taunted, just as Sibi does. The background score stays subtle and doesn't overpower the frames, playing up the suspense intelligently when needed.
The ending seemed sudden to me. I wasn't expecting the discovery that Sibi makes to come so quickly. But that's only if you look at it solely from the plane of reality. The last sequence suggests a rebirth - Sibi is almost defeated but with water, comes life, once again.
Carbon is rich in its layers and symbols. From the current generation of Malayalam male actors, it's probably only Fahadh who could have pulled off Sibi so convincingly. And it's riding on his tremendous performance that Carbon sparkles.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.